Getting a work out: agile in in-house teams

The latest way that the tech sector could impact legal lives comes not in the form of software or gadgetry, but project management. Could agile catch on in-house? GC speaks to converts to find out more.

Business is full of buzzwords, and among the buzziest of the last few years is ‘agile’.

The traditional project management approach is ‘waterfall’. But, in contrast to the dynamism of the term, the waterfall process can actually be quite rigid. After a long period of requirement gathering and planning, the project is developed in a linear way, journeying through multiple phases and functional silos. A final product is delivered after an often lengthy process, perhaps measured in months or years, but with little opportunity for adaptation once the process has begun.

‘It is difficult to adjust and change anything mid-course, it is very difficult to adapt if customer needs change, for instance,’ explains Carine Simon, senior lecturer in operations research and statistics at MIT Sloan School of Management.

Enter agile – an alternative approach to project management that was crystallised in 2001, when a group of software developers agreed upon the Agile Manifesto. It strives to build in flexibility as customer requirements evolve, and provide more opportunity for managing expectations.

‘It’s taking large, complex problems, breaking them down into smaller increments, then prioritising those increments based on relative value. As they’re completing pieces of work, agile teams are soliciting customer and stakeholder feedback along the way, so they can adapt accordingly,’ explains Will Poindexter, leader of Bain & Company’s technology and agile innovation practices in the Americas.

Agile works in iterations – or ‘sprints’ – in which teams undertake short, focused bursts of activity – perhaps as little as a day or as long as a month – each resulting in a new version of the product. This ‘minimum viable product’ can be tested and reviewed by the client on a regular basis, and adjustments easily made without wasted work.

The team assigned to a sprint is often called a ‘Scrum team’, led by a product manager or owner and, crucially, it is cross-functional – in contrast to the waterfall process, in which working sequentially through separate departments can make communication a challenge.

Working in this way, says Poindexter, not only increases the likelihood of the project’s success by as much as four to six times, it speeds up the process of getting a product to market, and instils more motivation, engagement and satisfaction into team members.

‘There’s much more ownership given to the team, and the fact that it’s cross-functional means that communication and knowledge barriers are broken down,’ says Simon.

To be agile, or not to be agile?

Over the past five years, agile has moved out of the realms of IT, with partial or even wholesale adoption in fields and functions as diverse as marketing, construction and manufacturing.

Having seen agile working first-hand during her time in the corporate strategy team at Liberty Mutual, Carine Simon believes there are no obvious drawbacks to the approach other than the necessity to get buy-in and to train people on how to work in an agile mode. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. If a task doesn’t typically see a lot of waste – for example, if work does not need to be repeatedly tested or redone, client feedback is not an important component, or if changes to the deliverable are easily made – then the iterative components of agile might not add much value. Also less prime for agile disruption, Simon says, are heavily regulated areas where the opportunity for rethinking might be stymied by the necessity of baking in non-negotiable elements of compliance.

‘Agile is not a Swiss Army Knife; it should be a tool in your toolbox versus the tool that you apply to every single problem,’ says Poindexter.

Agile teams are soliciting customer and stakeholder feedback along the way, so they can adapt accordingly.

He has found it best suited to highly innovative, customer-centric organisations where speed to market is paramount; organisations looking to break out of creeping bureaucracy; or those looking to ‘change-the-business’ functions – such as technology, product development or marketing – rather than ‘run-the-business’ ones, like legal. But if businesses adopt agile in a partial way without at least fostering an awareness among the latter functions, bottlenecks can arise. For this reason, during an agile roll-out, Poindexter often works with legal teams to build an understanding of agile and identify opportunities to harmonise across the different delivery methods.

‘One example in legal would be: can I create guardrails that we can work within from a legal perspective, and when things start to bump up against those guardrails, that’s where agile teams need to pull someone in from the legal team to help advise. It allows them a certain level of autonomy within the guardrails, without having to slow them down so that every time there’s something from a legal standpoint they have to go and look for help. That’s one way we work with “support and control” functions to help them adopt an agile mindset, even though the legal team may not be running sprints and fully shifting to an agile model,’ he explains.

But Simon sees some potential for direct agile application in legal teams:

‘If there would be a benefit to having the customer see multiple early versions or drafts of the contract and give feedback in an iterative fashion, if there’s a lot of interdependencies between different parts of the contract, such as changing one thing at the end would cascade to changing multiple parts of the document, then that would be an area where having an iterative agile process might help,’ she says.

And some corporate legal teams are seeing for themselves just how using agile methods can transform service delivery.

Sprinting to the finish

At pharmaceutical and medical device company B. Braun group, the legal team has reorganised into task-based teams, utilising Scrum, digital Kanban boards – charts that help teams to visualise and maintain workflow in terms of tasks to be done – and other collaboration-enabling software.

‘Before, each person was responsible for their areas of responsibility and, although there was interaction between each other regarding different topics, everyone was more working individually. Now, we are working more and more in teams, solving problems together,’ says junior legal counsel Vanessa Weis.

At B. Braun, a Scrum team might be composed of people with knowledge of a topic, and another who is a complete outsider, bringing a level of neutrality and objectivity to a sprint.

‘This person sometimes has the best ideas. It’s like the saying “You cannot see the wood for the trees” – sometimes that’s really true. I think we have got more open-minded on topics, and share more thoughts, even if it’s not our responsibility. We are sharing topics and responsibilities we have,’ Weis adds.

The Agile Manifesto

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

© 2001-2019 Agile Manifesto Authors

The team’s sprint approach has brought efficiency to the process of problem-solving by concentrating the efforts of the Scrum team into focused sessions – stripped of distractions such as phones or other meetings – that might last two or three hours, or even days depending on the size of the task.

‘We want to solve that problem during these hours or these days, and not work on it for weeks or for months, never getting things ready. In the past, someone would start a project and then you would be working in weekly or monthly project meetings,’ says Weis.

Opening minds

Gerd Pleuhs, general counsel of multinational snack company Mondelēz International, has organised his legal team into ‘centres of excellence’, which operate on a global basis. When local issues arise, these teams can quickly organise to collaborate with local business units, providing advice and training without the need for legal resources deployed permanently in each jurisdiction.

‘I think it creates a very trustful relationship with the finance side of the business, because they can see that it is a very efficient way of how you organise yourself and how you lower the cost of the service delivery while actually improving the quality,’ says Pleuhs.

The Mondelēz legal centres of excellence are grouped around subject areas – marketing, social media, data privacy and corporate governance – and so are perhaps not cross-functional in the strictest sense. But Pleuhs has found that the challenge of working flexibly across a full range of geographical jurisdictions exposes team members to cross-curricular problem-solving.

‘If you look at the traditional career development, you’re growing up in a department in your area of expertise over time. Now, with agile teams, what changes dramatically is the scope of work that you’re exposed to. You can have experiences which are completely different compared to the on-the-job experiences you have if you only focus on one geographical area or one subject,’ he says.

‘It changes the work for the individual involved and it becomes by far more interesting and colourful. If you are working in an agile team on resolving project X, once it’s done and you move on to the next one, it’s completely opened up a new chapter of your professional life. You’re building your own career and capabilities. You get more and more qualifications that then qualify you to become a more and more trusted and valued adviser within the company.’

Just add liquid

Global digital solutions provider Avanade, a joint venture of Microsoft and Accenture, has applied agile methods since 2011 and claims to employ more scrum masters than any other organisation in the world. The legal team has been no exception, plugging in and creating what general counsel David Oskandy calls a ‘liquid workforce’. Team members have a specific set of skills, often in core areas such as commercial and intellectual property law but, by virtue of working in an agile way, many have developed a sub-level of expertise.

For Avanade, the liquid workforce translates to a team of 60 lawyers working globally, enabled by a digital platform where team members can request assistance or pick up work, easing handover and communication across time zones. Some proponents of agile, like Poindexter, have found that co-location is important to productivity, but recognise the reality that this isn’t always feasible given globally dispersed teams, and that technology such as video conferencing can help bridge the gap. And, as cutting-edge technology shrinks distances, Oskandy believes that both skills and collegial bonds can flourish across borders.

‘Roughly speaking, 50% of our lawyers are playing a cross-border or global role. They can become really familiar with a new legal system, with perhaps a different area of law than they’re used to practising, and this is something that my team members tell me is life-changing for them, because [in the past] so many lawyers have been confined to or pigeonholed to the role they were hired in,’ says Oskandy.

Avanade’s legal team also creates thought-leadership taskforces – to prepare for GDPR, for example.

‘The task forces are visibly expanding the roles and responsibilities of many, if not most, of our lawyers. They’re building themselves into bigger profiles, both substantively and in terms of leadership. They’re getting more visibility within the company because they’re able to advise on areas that previously they felt were off limits to them. It enhances their career within the company and within the industry overall,’ says Oskandy.

The liquid workforce: Avanade’s application of agile methodology

‘The liquid workforce has allowed us to handle a 26% increase in master service agreements – the basic kind of operating arrangement with our clients – as well as developing new offerings, new alliances and enhancing our ability to keep up with new laws and trends. This last aspect is really important in our space, with greater rigour over data privacy and data protection laws as the legal field catches up to technology in terms of the requirements of complying with industry.

It has allowed us to lead the company as well. The best example is that we were at the forefront of developing our position on digital ethics. We set up a framework, put together a cross-functional taskforce and we’ve developed a point of view on digital ethics. Thought leadership is a really critical component in our company and I think this is pervasive in the tech industry. Technology changes so very fast – we notice big changes once every three months. You’ve got to be as swift as those changes to stay ahead of them, and this model encourages our lawyers to do that.

A knock-on effect of the liquid workforce is that we’re more readily leveraging offshore resources, contractors, interns and bots. That set of resources for lower-risk work has enabled us to purify our time and maximise our focus on the highest risk and highest potential.

The liquid workforce makes us congruent with the day-to-day culture of the business. Because we understand and operate with agile as a legal team, we speak the same language and we have the same muscle memory as the business, which I think is really important in terms of keeping up with them and maintaining credibility with them. We’re well integrated with the business team, we’ve got a bigger voice, and this allows us to participate in developing strategy, which is a bigger role for a lawyer than simply acting as the problem solver or the risk manager.

The feedback that I’ve gotten back from the CEO and the rest of the business is “highly efficient” and “productive”. They recognise that we have really transformed ourselves into the highest value-add team that we possibly could create.’

But an organisational style that invites frequent changes of scenery – be it changes of project or jurisdiction – requires a certain flexibility in the mindset of recruits.

‘What we are looking for is people who are more willing to be a generalist than a specialist. You still need the specialists and subject matter experts. But in dealing with the general kind of work that a company of ours has to manage on a daily basis, you want to have people who are curious, who want to learn, who want to build a career on making an experience in different parts of the law in order to become a more rounded lawyer,’ says Pleuhs.

Are you a believer?

There is no doubt that deciding to implement agile requires full commitment from the top to the bottom in order to make a success of what is, unavoidably, a substantial change management effort.

‘To really bring people with you in this effort, to convince others and sustain your own energy in the persistence and insistence you need to make this happen, you’ve got to be a true believer,’ says Oskandy.

‘With agile teams, what changes dramatically is the scope of work that you’re exposed to.’

At this point, many readers might look away, thanks to the received wisdom that the legal mindset is not always best adapted to changes of process.

‘In the beginning, I really struggled with how much time it took to convince people and how much investment you have to make in the process to convince folks to join you on that journey. There’s a fear coming with it because you have to give up certain things and invest in certain other stuff,’ says Pleuhs.

‘If I give my knowledge to an agile working group, I have to be willing to not spend time on stuff that I used to do and rely on my colleagues to help me get those things done. And that is a little bit of a learning curve – you have to let the trust build in the system and that it works.’

Being agile about being agile

As with other organisational change management projects, a good way to create buy-in can be to do a ‘proof of concept’ – identify suitable teams or functions for a pilot, and then use success to develop advocates who can sell the idea elsewhere.

‘It might be a little meta, but have an agile way of implementing agile, so it’s not all areas of the company at once, it’s iteratively starting where it makes more sense,’ says Simon.

‘We have seen some organisations that have tried a “big bang roll-out”, and they are big and flashy and they make headlines. But the results really tell a different story. What you find is it creates a lot of disruption and a lot of churn,’ adds Poindexter.

On the functional level, a gradual approach can be a good rule of thumb, too. Oskandy’s legal team, for example, deployed agile initially in the Nordic region, then extended across the globe following a successful transition.

Being iterative might also mean listening carefully to the experiences of those on the frontline.

And being iterative might also mean listening carefully to the experiences of those on the frontline – even if they’re not customers.

‘When we started to use the different agile methods, a lot of people were sceptical. But [B. Braun general counsel] Dr Daum said, “If it’s not working, then that’s also fine. But let’s try this.” That was a really good beginning, because all the time we had the feeling we could say “It’s not good for us, it’s not helping, it’s time-consuming,” recalls Weis.

This reassurance was instrumental in winning over doubters, in part because it allowed for no-strings experimentation, which then revealed the methods most likely to enjoy greatest longevity in the department.

‘At the beginning we did a lot of sprints, because we wanted to try that out, and maybe we will decrease the amount of sprints in the future. In any case, we will keep using sprint, Scrum, the Kanban board, as we learned that we can organise our work efficiently using these methods. That’s a very good outcome, because at the beginning a lot of people were doubting that this could be a good approach. Now more and more people are convinced,’ she says.

The Mondelēz team took a similarly democratic approach to developing the vision for its future legal function.

‘What normally happens in an organisation with a more traditional mindset is you take the leadership teams and maybe their direct reports, and then you have a conference. We’ve been embarking on a different journey. We bring together teams from across the globe at different levels of hierarchy – so it’s not only the leaders, we have highly talented people who are somewhere else in the department, very junior people assigned to certain jobs. We get together in a facilitated environment for three days and try to hammer out a plan, which then we will present and implement to the entire department,’ Pleuhs explains.

‘Rather than “leaders are imposing it on me”, we have people who are “one of us” working on it – and they are wonderful ambassadors to implement what they have helped to design. I believe it is one way to really motivate a small group for the benefit of the entire department.’

Selling the value proposition

None of this is to say that the role of the leader should vanish in a fog of self-organisation – although those with very top-down, detail-oriented leadership styles might perceive team empowerment as loss of control.

‘We’ve seen a number of agile efforts that have not reached full potential because the leadership didn’t change their behaviours. I think it’s important to get the leadership on the same page with the actual team in terms of what are we trying to accomplish, what do we need to change?’ says Poindexter.

‘I think agile allows leaders to actually focus on what they should be doing, which is setting strategic direction, freeing up resources to actually work on the highest priority things, and removing impediments so that their teams can be productive.’

Oskandy agrees that the leadership is fundamental in supporting cultural change.

‘The value proposition has got to be right in order for people to really buy into it. But that’s a big learning – you’ve got to have that growth and mindset firmly in mind to encourage people to take steps beyond their core role, which they are very comfortable in. You’re requiring more time from them, more effort, more thought, more bandwidth,’ he explains.

Avanade works with, founded by software developer and consultant Ken Schwaber – one of the original Agile Manifesto authors – and has access to 2,000 trained Scrum professionals plus 60 agile coaches. It also conducts training on a continuous basis, often with immediate practical application baked into the process.

‘The lead on a task force will also be the lead for the agile-based training and it’s a very interactive methodology. They’ll set aside a specific time, ideally in person but quite often virtually, and create space for people to go through that process together. The training embeds itself so much more effectively when you’ve got people engaged not only in learning something really substantive, but also how we are going to deploy this,’ explains Oskandy.

‘You’re incorporating planning and giving people the opportunity to become part of that process, so they’re learning something new substantively, but they’re also contributing as they’re learning to how do we set this up for the company, how do we train others, what is it that other people need to know, and how do we communicate this? It’s all part of one effort.’

Carine Simon believes that getting team buy-in for agile methodology outside of the software development sphere might soon be a problem of the past, as new graduates without preconceived project management ideas enter the job market.

‘Then it becomes a much more natural way of doing work – it’s not like a big change where people switch from one mode of functioning that they’ve done for the past 20 years to a new mode. I think agile may become the new project management technique that is part of the standard toolbox of graduate students,’ she says.

Agile might not be for everyone, but some legal teams are deciding that it is – and if other business units have already walked the same path, it could be a critical tool for establishing a common language, common ground – and credibility.